Sunday, August 17, 2008

Manos: The Hands of Fate (Independent, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later Charles and I ran one of his Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads, a 1966 “Z” film called Manos: The Hands of Fate (one commentator noted that the title is redundant since “manos” means “hands” in Spanish, so the title is really Hands: The Hands of Fate) that may not be the absolute worst movie ever made (I’d still reserve that title for Shriek of the Mutilated, which I saw in the early 1980’s on a pre-MST3K show in the San Diego area called Schlock Theatre, which differed only in that the snarky comments on the movie were delivered as subtitles instead of being spoken over the film’s dialogue) but is certainly dull and cheap enough to rate a good place on a ten-worst list.

Manos: The Hands of Fate was the handiwork (pardon the pun) of Harold P. Warren, who produced, directed, wrote and starred (though he took his acting credit as “Hal Warren”) and was filmed entirely in El Paso, Texas — which got a thank-you credit at the end (I can just see the city fathers of El Paso going, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and I’m surprised the MST3K crew didn’t do the obvious riff on Marty Robbins’ famous song: “Down in the west Texas town of El Paso/They made a movie called Manos: The Hands of Fate/It really sucked, big-time”). Its plot, if you can call it that, deals with a vacationing couple, Michael (Hal Warren) and Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) and their dog, who spend most of the opening reel driving their convertible along the open countryside around El Paso in footage of such mind-numbing dullness one wonders if Warren had cribbed stock footage from the Texas Department of Highway Safety.

The movie gets worse when Michael is tricked into taking a side road by a sign advertising the “Valley Lodge” — only, after yet more boring footage of the principals driving around, they finally arrive not at the “Valley Lodge” (it doesn’t really exist) but at a house inhabited by a Satanic death cult led by “The Master” (Tom Neyman, presumably Jackie’s real-life father), whose manservant Torgo (John Reynolds) — who walks throughout with a curiously variable limp as if they couldn’t decide precisely what disability they wanted this character to have — takes their baggage even as he’s warning them that “The Master" probably won't want them to stay. Before we meet "The Master" we see a painting of him (he's not half-bad looking!) with his black dog from hell, and the live dog we’ve seen escapes and is recovered in petrified form, presumably killed magically by the “Master”’s dog from hell.

Then the child disappears (lucky her!) and the parents are tricked into joining “The Master” in his latest ritual, which consists of all the “Master”’s previous wives being chained to white posts as he dances around them in a black robe with red silhouettes of hands on it — which seems to be the only explanation for the film’s two-handed title. (The funniest part of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of this film is Joel Hodgson’s emergence during one of the interstital sketches in a similar robe, onlyinstead of hands his is emblazoned with feet, presumably setting up a sequel called Pedos: The Feet of Fate.)

It’s one of those annoying horror movies in which the bad guys win — the “Master” adds Margaret to his white-clad brides’ collection and Michael takes Torgo’s place as his manservant and greeter, and “The End” on the final title is succeeded by a question mark — but that’s not the least of its problems. Manos: The Hands of Fate was filmed with a silent, hand-held camera that could only run for 32 seconds at a time — leading to such intriguing effects as a sequence that dissolves from one landscape shot to another of the same location from (almost) the same angle! — and all the dialogue was dubbed in later by just three actors (an adult man, an adult woman and a child). Reportedly Jackey Neyman burst into tears when the final film was screened and she heard the horrible kid’s voice they’d assigned to dub for her.

The MST3K crew had a lot of fun with the film’s florid title and the sameness of the voices — when they joked about how each conversation scene between two or more male characters sounded like the voices were all coming from the same person, it was because they were! As I joked later to Charles, Manos: The Hands of Fate is the sort of movie that makes you look at your life totally differently, if only because it makes you wonder, “Why are we wasting our time watching crap like this?”